The Achilles heel of women in politics

Image of Gillian Tett

There are not many political films that have left me haunted, but Game Change, a new HBO film on the 2008 American election campaign, is one. A few days ago, this docu-drama premiered on US TV screens. Ever since then, scenes from the film have continued to flash through my mind, as the Republican contest drags on.

That is not just because Game Change reveals the tormented soul of the Republican party (although it does). Nor is it down to its description of the mistakes that political strategists can sometimes make (which are chilling). Instead, the truly compelling issue is the portrait of Sarah Palin, played by Julianne Moore. For there is perhaps nobody on the American political scene today who reflects so many contradictions about gender politics as Ms Palin, nor leaves professional women like myself feeling so torn. Indeed, if an anthropologist or psychologist wanted to research the complexities of modern female images, the sassy Moore-cum-Palin would be a perfect place to start.

Think back, for a moment, to those heady days of the 2008 US election campaign. When Palin first became internationally famous, after John McCain, the Republican presidential contender, unexpectedly chose the Governor of Alaska as his running mate, I – like many of my female friends – felt a secret frisson of delight. Irrespective of party politics, it was refreshing to see a woman on stage, particularly one who seemed to be “juggling” family life and career, with a sense of humour, glasses and normal(ish) figure.

McCain’s popularity temporarily soared. But then disappointment set in. Never mind the specific details of Palin’s political views. The key issue was competence. On stage, Palin dazzled with charisma. But as campaigning got under way, she seemed embarrassingly ignorant of world affairs (remember when she was interviewed by Katie Couric, the TV anchor, and failed to name any newspapers?). By late 2008, Palin seemed so out of her depth that it was difficult not to wince – and to conclude that her elevation was harming, not helping, women in politics. When a row later erupted about the cost of her clothes, it seemed to be the final straw.

In some senses, Game Change simply confirms those fears. According to the film (based on a book of the same name), Palin shot to fame in 2008 because Republican strategists were desperate to find something – anything – to counter the charisma of Barack Obama.

A female face was considered a potential “game-changer”. So the film depicts the McCain team scrolling through YouTube to watch prominent Republican women. They then select Palin because she looked good on stage, had a compelling family tale, and the type of conservative views that could appeal to the Republican base. Nobody around McCain truly checked whether this newcomer had the requisite knowledge or skills to be a vice-president. Instead, McCain’s team (and Palin herself) assumed she could acquire the knowledge with study cards. Tellingly, the only person who spotted Palin’s weaknesses at an early stage was Nicolle Wallace, former White House communications director, and the other woman on the McCain team. Unlike her male colleagues, she saw beyond Palin’s face.

Now, the film does not suggest that Palin was blameless in this saga. If she had been less hungry for fame – or had more self knowledge – she could have said “no” to the strategists and/or memorised more policy notes. But, to my surprise, I left Game Change feeling real sympathy for the plight of Moore-cum-Palin. She emerges as a woman who holds patriotic ideals that chime with many Americans, but who was twisted by a political machine gone mad. She never asked to wear the expensive clothes that proved controversial; like so much else, they were imposed to maintain an image.

Of course, some may dispute this version of events. Indeed, last week, Palin herself called Game Change a “fiction” (no surprise there. As my colleague Jurek Martin has noted, this film may crush any future political ambitions). But the film appears to be well researched. And, fiction or not, it raises some very real questions. Can politics in the US today ever get beyond the current obsession with “image”? Is being a woman a source of strength in politics – or an Achilles heel? And can female power ever be discussed in a gender-neutral way? (Check out the media coverage of entirely smart female politicians, such as Hillary Clinton, or business leaders such as Sheryl Sandberg, to see the continued contortions that dog the perceptions of female “success”.) There are no easy answers, even in a presidential campaign that will probably be dominated by four males.

Perhaps the one truly heartening message from Game Change is that it shows some US networks are still investing in truly thoughtful television shows – even as most channels become over-run by the type of image-obsessed, breathless “news” that created the Palin phenomenon in the first place.

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